This is rather a long report and covers the past 7 weeks in Colombia. We have spent most of this time in Bogotá waiting for our truck to be repaired. The waiting is not over, but you'll have to wait for our next report to see how it all turns out...
Friday, 21 March 2008, Villa de Leyva
It's Good Friday and we are in Zona de Camping San Jorge with somewhere around 40 tents of Colombian campers out for their Easter holidays. I don't think we have seen so many tents in one place since the provincial campgrounds of Canada! We arrived here last Saturday when there were only 2 tents; one of them an Australian backpacker called Russell, with whom we enjoyed sharing travelling stories. We had also been here briefly almost 3 weeks ago, but only for 2 nights, as a break in our journey from Santa Marta to Bogotá. At that time we were the only people in the campground.
Between the two visits we spent almost 2 weeks in Bogotá on a quest to find someone who can at least tell us what is wrong with the truck, and maybe even fix it. It has become something of a saga which began when the 'check engine light' came on in Panama. Juergen has explained in previous reports his attempts to find answers in the coastal cities, and the continuation in Bogotá has raised the score of workshops visited to 14 at the last count.
We were lucky in Bogotá to have the company of Juergen and Eli, a couple who had made contact with Juergen over the internet. They are travelling in a Toyota Landcruiser, but were staying for the time in a small apartment belonging to Colombian friends. This meant that we could stay in the parking lot outside, next to a pleasant park with children's play equipment, which was well utilised on weekends. Although it was really close to the airport, it was unbelievably quiet overnight - we had expected to have a difficult time finding a suitable place to sleep in a city of over 7.5 million people. The area is an older, but well cared for, barrio (neighbourhood) of the city. The buildings are only 2-3 floors high and it is a very friendly community - it gives the impression that many of the people have lived there a long time and they all seem to know each other. Locals were once again really curious about our camper and our life, especially the kids, who would come in a group and all crowd inside. The next day one or two of them would be back with some different friends who also wanted to see inside.
Juergen and Eli were also very helpful when it came to finding places in Bogotá. Their friend Alvaro suggested workshops that might be able to help us, and also acted as an interpreter over the telephone when the mechanics couldn't explain to us what they were doing or thought they should do. Eli, who is Mexican, made numerous phone calls on our behalf and this was really appreciated, because anyone who has learnt a second language will know that understanding on the phone takes much longer to develop than the face to face variety. And Juergen went with Juergen to a couple of workshops one day to act as an interpreter and see if they could find out more about what had been or could be done.
The time spent at workshops was tedious, repetitive and very frustrating. The problem is compounded by the fact that until this particular problem arose, we were unaware that our truck has a computer. In fact Juergen had researched this model for that reason - we didn't want anything that was computerised. Now every workshop we go to wants to hook up a scanner to our computer, but hardly anybody seems to have the right scanner. Then there are a couple of places that claim to have a scanner which reads our computer but somehow they don't get any results. Basically the truck is running rough and using more fuel than normal. There has been any number of suggestions as to the problem from dirty fuel to electronic connections to mechanical issues. A couple of places have even spent considerable time on trying to clean things or check things but still don't have a real answer. Finally, just before we left Bogotá, a couple of places suggested pulling the engine apart to find the problem. This begins to appear to be the only solution, but then we face the issue with spare parts - it may be that they have to send to the USA for something like a new gasket and who knows how long that will take...
Once again I must mention how friendly and helpful all these people have tried to be. One workshop owner (Oswaldo), who speaks very good English, took us home to stay at his apartment for the night because he wanted us to leave the truck in the workshop to check it when it was completely cold the next morning. They gave us their daughter's bedroom to sleep in and ordered in pizza for dinner. It was quite overwhelming that Oswaldo and his family would take in complete strangers in this way. We spent another night 'camped' inside a huge workshop for the same reason. And we are not going from one workshop to another in frustration - in most instances we are sent by the owners/managers from one to another in the hope of finding a solution. The most encouraging thing of all in terms of the honesty of these businesses is that they don't charge us because they haven't found a solution for us, or they charge a minimal amount to cover some of the time spent. All in all, while being quite frustrating, it has also been a rewarding experience in terms of the people we are meeting.
We managed to do only a few other things while in Bogotá, including visiting the historic centre on two occasions, by bus. The bus services in Bogotá are very good, although they do make driving a little hairy! There is a widespread system called the Transmilenia, which has dedicated lanes on major roads. This makes them very fast and also removes some of the congestion on these roads caused by buses constantly stopping and starting. It is already quite mad, but I can't imagine how bad it would have been before the advent of the Transmilenia. (Another step into the right direction are the dedicated bicycle paths in many sections of Bogotá.)
The historical centre, La Candelaria, has some quite nice colonial buildings, but the rest of the city is not particularly attractive - it is just rather large and crowded, like all the cities we try to avoid. If it weren't for the people and the truck problem, we would never stay so long in the place. On the first day we were there the police presence was even stronger than normal and there were many protesters in the city centre. Although we are never completely sure of what is happening, it appeared that they were protesting against war and all injustices that have been, or might be, visited upon innocent citizens of this country. It was held at this time, I think, because there was some political strife with Venezuela and Ecuador which had resulted in the borders being closed to both countries, their embassies in Bogotá being closed and also some military build-up along the frontiers. This was a particular problem for Eli and Juergen because they wanted to travel on to Venezuela next, and Eli had to get a visa from the embassy, which was closed. Fortunately during the following week this conflict was resolved without unnecessary violence.
Our second visit to the centre was on a Saturday afternoon to watch a parade that was to open an international theatre festival, with companies from many parts of the world participating - including Australia. As the bus was travelling into the city centre it began to rain quite heavily and when we arrived many of the streets were running like rivers! During a slight lull, we made our way to a café and spent the next couple of hours sitting at the window watching the pouring rain and people crossing the street in front of us in ankle deep water. Needless to say, the parade didn't take place and other than finding an internet café, it was rather a disappointing and fruitless visit.
Juergen had his birthday while we were there and, since it fell on a Sunday and no mechanics were working, we spent a rather quiet day with Eli and Juergen. Eli and I cooked a nice fish curry dinner and the day was very relaxing. It was a pleasant change to have a space outside of the truck to spend time in, and we were very grateful to them for being prepared to share the small apartment with us.
In between the mechanics we also managed to spend a little time in the large shopping centres in Bogotá. We had our hair cut, stocked up on food supplies that are more difficult to find in the smaller places, and spent several hours in an enormous hardware store buying useful things ranging from screws to rubber boots! With Eli's help on the phone we also found a convenient place to fill up our propane cylinder. We had tried to do this on the way from Villa de Leyva to Bogotá, thinking that there wouldn't be a plant in Bogotá. When we were unsuccessful we had expected to have to drive right to the outskirts of the city to find a place. We were lucky that the one Eli called was in an industrial estate quite close to where we were staying, and on the way - sort of - to the Ford workshop where we were due that day. In an interesting aside, Juergen was chatting to yet another Colombian, while waiting at the gas place, who spoke English and was curious about what we were doing. It turned out that he imports car parts from the USA, and he gave Juergen his card. We have yet to see if it will be useful or not - but it doesn't hurt to have it up our sleeve just in case.
So we left Bogotá for Villa de Leyva last Saturday with nothing achieved as far as the truck is concerned, but many interesting people and experiences behind us. We will see how things progress when we return to Bogotá on Tuesday.
Continuation on > Page 2 > !